Nature Chemistry | The Sceptical Chymist

Materials Girl: Physics, summer school, and math – oh my!

Posted on behalf of Materials Girl:

1. Ah, physicists. Ampere! Faraday! Biot and Savant! All undoubtedly brilliant, but to what extent are chemists required to know the laws so named after those individuals? I jokingly asked a physics-inclined friend to take a midterm on my behalf, and was answered with a resounding, “I don’t remember that magnetic crap” (Eloquent, that boy…)

Physics is indisputably my worst subject. Words such as “torque”, “flux”, and “vector field” fill me with dread, while classes in other fields have caused no major crises. Although the concepts in physics are simple enough, I rarely seem to derive solutions without help. (Interestingly, my Science of Engineering Materials course was very physics tuned, but caused few difficulties). I have yet to take physical chemistry, and am deeply alarmed by my inability to conquer physics-based problem-solving – an impediment that has not been rectified with extra tutelage and homework…

To the more experienced, have you had notable problems with physics, or any other prerequisite classes to chemistry? What did you do?

2. People have labeled me insane for taking summer classes, but it is a necessity if I am to graduate in four years. On the other side, what occupies a typical graduate student during the summer? Taking classes? Researching new projects? Procrastinating on writing theses? Sleeping and relaxing? Same old, same old?

3. As far as mathematics goes, I recently finished my last final in that field: differential equations! Great class – nothing beats interesting material taught by an articulate teacher with a sense of humor.

Quoting my professor, while he was demonstrating a problem: “Oooh, I forgot t’s.” After observing multiple blackboards covered with matrices in power series expansion: “Let’s just erase it in ‘e to the At’ here [near the beginning]. That’s better. It still works!” If only chemistry problems could be so easily rectified! “Oh, there’s a methyl missing in my product and all the previous steps – let’s just change the initial reactants and erase a bond over here…” Or, as my favorite o-chem prof always reiterated during exams, “You may NOT put five bonds on carbon!!”

Another question. How often do differential equations present themselves in higher level chemistry? According to the chemistry catalogue, only quantum mechanics includes DEs as a prerequisite. Hmm…


  1. Report this comment

    Uncle Al said:

    Why not put five bonds on carbon under modest circumstances? Start with Hydride Sponge, 1,8-bis(dimethylboro)naphthylene. Add a nice anion like -C(COOMe)3. The former chelates the latter into a trigonal bipyramid. Meldrum’s acid anion, -C(CN)3… Pick your pKa, redox potential, and base hardness/softness. It’s a nice bootleg Saturday in the lab. (All discovery is insubordinate.)

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    Michael G said:

    I’ve never used DE’s since starting work 2 years ago and fail to see an occasion when they might come up in my med chem job.

    Regarding the ease of correcting mistakes in maths vs chemistry one time when I needed MeI and couldn’t find it (to quench my anion) I asked a colleague if I should just use EtI instead and make that, and he replied, “Sure, just chop off the extra carbon with your carbon scissors!” Genius invention if you ask me!

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    Jeremy said:

    With regard to physics vs. p-chem: I believe my grades in my two semesters of required physics were a C and a C+. In p-chem, I was easily the top scorer in the class. It wasn’t even close. The type of material presented and thus the methods required for solving problems are quite different.

    With regard to DifEQ: As an undergrad, I think I could have gotten by without a deep understanding of how to deal w/ differential equations. However, they were all over my graduate quantum mechanics course, so if you continue on, you may need them more. I actually found the need to solve a differential equation in my job the other day. Surprised the heck out of me. Luckily, you can look up most solutions in a book/online, because I’ve forgotten everything about that class.

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    anonymous said:

    There is spectroscopic evidence of five-coordinate carbon species in superacids. Protio-iso-propyl dication is one example.

    I once had a final exam question regarding rearrangements in superacids, and the best answer involved a 5-coordinate carbon intermediate.

    I had read a review by Olah just prior to sitting the exam, but unfortunately my prof had never seen it. If I hadn’t checked over my exam after grading and then shown him the paper I would have probably dropped a letter grade.

    There is danger to reading too far beyond the class notes.